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Culture

Berlin Art Upgrades from Sexy to Sophisticated

The Berlin Biennial is designed to consolidate the city's status as a fertile breeding ground for avant garde art. But cultivating creativity is one thing -- getting buyers to spend is another matter.

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The Berlin Biennial has established itself on the city's packed arts calendar

Berlin played a key role in European art throughout the 20th century, spawning generations of avant-garde artists and inspiring many of the revolutionary movements that shaped the art world in the last 100 years.

But although the city was traditionally a magnet for artists in the first half of the 20th century, its 40-year division left it out in the cold until reunification in 1990, existing wholly outside of the commercial world and completely cut off from international contacts and influences. In subsequent years, low rents and the heady atmosphere of change made it once again attractive to creative types who helped put it -- slowly but surely -- back on the art map.

So when it comes to numbers of artists and galleries, the city's art industry has long been competing with London and New York. But while there are some 450 galleries in the city -- authorities estimate that one new gallery opens each week -- there's relatively little international money being spent here.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit made a virtue of neccessity when he dubbed the city "poor but sexy," but the reality is that the city would be thrilled if its much-touted arts and culture could also bring home the bacon.

The last decade has seen a clutch of major art fairs do their bit to entice out-of-town investors, including the annual Art Forum, founded in 1995, the Berlin Biennial in 2003 and the annual Gallery Weekend launched in 2005.

Biennial bonanza

The New Nationalgalerie

The New Nationalgalerie is one of the biennial's venues

The 5th Berlin Biennial for contemporary art, entitled "When things cast no shadow" and curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic, started luring the art world's glitterati to the capital as of Friday, April 5.

The event will comprise two parts, day and night. During the day, artworks and specially commissioned projects will be on view at three main venues, selected for their cultural significance as well as for their political and economic contexts. They range from established galleries to al fresco makeshift museums.

Each venue offers a very different type of exhibition space, with distinctive conditions and frameworks for the artists, artworks, and viewers.

During the night, the exhibition will continue in the form of diverse events held in widely different sites throughout the city every evening.

The lure of the hauptstadt

Using the city as a complement to the art being showcased is characteristic of the contemporary scene.

"Berlin has an urban charm that isn't only about art," said Klaus Gerrit Friese, president of the German Association of German Galleries. "A city that plays host to key events, be they political, social or artistic, will always attract plenty of international artists."

Thomas Schulte, another Berlin gallery owner, noted in The International Herald Tribune last month that the German capital has a history of attracting foreign artists that dates back to the 1920s.

"Its geographical position stimulates various cultural exchanges between the East and the West," he said, pointing out that the tradition was brutally interrupted by the rise of Nazism, World War II and the partition of Germany.

Paying off

Thomas Demand's art work called Bathroom

Work by German artist Thomas Demand is snapped up by collectors

But according to Martin Mertens, a gallery owner and art historian, Berlin's main appeal is precisely that it has trodden a new unique path that set its apart from the glitzier and more commercial art being peddled on London's Cork Street or in New York's Soho.

"Most of the international artists have moved to Berlin because apartments and studios are still relatively cheap," he said.

He pays 400 euros ($625) a month for his gallery space on the Brunnenstrasse, a street on the outskirts of the gentrified Mitte neighborhood, currently billed as the hippest art avenue in town -- and said he could never dream of such a low rent in London or Paris.

Friese is confident that the buzz will soon start to pay off.

"We're hoping to see the emergence of a collectorship on the same scale as in Cologne [the commercial center of the German art scene]," he said. "Let's wait five years, then we'll see a change in the figures."

He predicted that it won't be long before the cash starts to flow, and said a number of well-heeled collectors are moving to Berlin -- including Christian Boros, the Hoffmanns, Axel Haubrock and Wilhelm Schuermann.

It's good news for the contemporary art scene -- but bound to leave the nay-sayers maintaining that Berlin has lost its edge.

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